News and Tribune

October 26, 2012

STAWAR: Bragging after 60

Local columnist

> SOUTHERN INDIANA — I once bragged to a friend that I was more than 55 years old and didn’t take any medicines on a regular basis. He just stared at me and then shot my claim to pieces, saying, “No wonder! You never go to the doctor. It’s not that you’re so healthy, you’re just chicken.”

Watching the presidential debates on television has made me think about how and why we brag. Bragging is usually viewed as socially inappropriate, or worse. In the Bible, James 4:16 says, “…  you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.” But how else can you sell yourself to others without talking about your achievements?

Sure, candidates get others (called surrogates) to do it for them, but in their stump speeches and in the debates, they have to toot their own horns. I’m just glad that I don’t have an army of fact-checkers just waiting to repudiate me when I brag.

Around the world, people fear that bragging may be increasing. It has even become a concern in China, where modesty is a traditional value. In a survey by China Youth Daily, 63 percent of respondents said that young Chinese people are prone to bragging and 41 percent strongly disapproved of such behavior.

Two-thirds of a sample of more than 10,000 people listed “interpersonal connections,” “amount of income” and “buying capacity” are the most frequent topics of the boasting. Most thought that bragging was a warning sign of an increasingly impulsive society, and that young people used boasting to try to increase their confidence, especially when communicating with peers.

Social media such as Facebook and Twitter have been implicated in the bragging upsurge. According to researchers, when we talk about ourselves it activates the same pleasure centers in the brain as food, money and sex. About 30 to 40 percent of our everyday speech is devoted to talking about ourselves. In a Wall Street Journal interview regarding her research, Harvard neuroscientist Diana Tamir said, “Self-disclosure is extra rewarding. People were even willing to forgo money in order to talk about themselves.”

Using sophisticated brain imaging techniques Tamir and her colleague Jason Mitchell found that brains areas associated with reward responded strongly whenever subjects were talking about themselves, but were less engaged when they were talking about others. When research subjects were offered a modest amount of money to talk about others, people forfeited up to 17 percent of the proffered cash just to talk about themselves. When an audience was involved, this rate increased to 25 percent.

This need to constantly tell others about our activities and accomplishments, no matter how trivial, goes a long way to explaining the popularity of social media. More than 80 percent of social media posts consists of reports about one’s own immediate experiences. This may also explain why so many criminals brag about their crimes to other people, even though it greatly increases their chances of being apprehended.

They simply can’t help it.

Bragging, complaining and sharing unsolicited political views were the top three irritating social media behaviors identified by Internet company Eversave in a recent survey of more than 400 women. While a large majority of the women appreciated how Facebook allowed them to see friends’ photos and videos (91 percent), there was never-the-less an underlying current of “resentment and irritation” in most Facebook friendships, with 85 percent of respondents reporting they had been annoyed by friends online.

Social media maven Charlene DeLoach Oliver says, “Most people regard social media, like Facebook, as a place to gripe or boast because they often can’t do it in real life.”

In a couple of months, many of us will be bombarded with another traditional vehicle of braggadocio — the annual Christmas letter, which has been described as “a litany of bombastic bragging disguised as holiday cheer.” These letters often focus on the writer’s fantastic new possessions, unbelievable business successes and, of course, their genius children.

While some people (referred to as documentarians) use Facebook as a digital baby book to document every wonderful thing their children (or grandchildren) ever do, the Christmas letter is where many people summarize an entire year’s worth of achievements. It’s not so surprising that children are one of the main topics of bragging, since most psychologists consider them “ego extensions” of the parents. I personally never condone uncontrolled bragging about children, but to paraphrase New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin, if you ever got a load of our grandchildren, you’d throw rocks at your own.

Besides children, there are a host of other subjects for bragging. People can get competitive about almost anything. Blogger Sharla Smith has described many of the unusual things that she has heard people actually brag about, including, peripheral vision; why they don’t really need their glasses; how much food they can eat at a buffet; how much pain they can endure; how sick they are; how horrific their childbirth labor was; how they cheated on their taxes; how many scars they have; the bargains they have gotten;, and various unmentionable bodily characteristics and functions. Unfortunately for the last category, many of these boasts came accompanied with live demonstrations.

There is a fine line between expressing healthy self-esteem and bragging. And there is also a social tradeoff between being seen as being competent or being seen as likable. People who present themselves as being modest are often considered less competent than those who comes on strong. On the other hand, blatant self-promoters are usually viewed as being less likable. Researchers like Florida State University psychologist Dianne Tice have studied strategies that reduce this either/or conflict.

She, for example, suggests that when addressing strangers who do not know one’s background, self-promotion is the most effective strategy. On the other hand, when addressing people who are already aware of your past achievements, modesty may be the best policy.

Other experts advise that prefacing self-promoting remarks with a disqualifying statement like, “ I don’t mean to brag, but …” also creates a better impression. It is also generally best to avoid comparative self-praise, since by nature, it derogates someone else. People who brag without making specific comparisons are generally viewed more positively.

I still brag about our children, even though they’re not quite as adorable as they once were. But as I get older I’ve noticed that the things I brag about have started to change. Among my current bragging topics are: being able to skip down the stairs two steps at a time; my car mileage; the ability to read medicine bottles (with or without glasses); remembering where we saw a particular actor before; my cholesterol level; calling our three sons by the right names when they’re all together; remembering 90 percent of the things on the grocery list,; being able to eat a pepperoni pizza after 9 p.m.; sleeping all night without a backache or three trips to the bathroom; and the price I pay for acetaminophen at the dollar store.

When I brag about these things, I’m afraid people will think I’m just being “Varicose Vain.”

— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at Checkout his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at